Friday, January 11, 2013

Reading between the lines

Mary Catelli has an excellent post about using primary sources in research. It makes many points that I've often thought about when reading history books and historical fiction. For example, she says: "Everyone who writes, writes for a purpose. Discovering that purpose is not only part of learning about the era, it's also necessary to read between the lines."

Writers have a point of view, an agenda. They may lie, misremember, propagandize, use false flattery. They may make careless mistakes or may deliberately cover something up. They may omit things that are common knowledge at the time.

They have opinions. Imagine polling 100 people about any US President. You are likely to get wildly divergent and contradictory opinions about who that person is, what his intentions are, and whether he's been good for the country. Now imagine if only one of those people wrote down his feelings about the President, and that became the primary source document for a researcher of the future. It's instantly apparent how many facets of a person and an era can be missed.

Also, we have social customs that we all follow, but we rarely write about them and don't formally acknowledge them as rules. This is one of the hardest things for someone to discover and adjust to when moving from one culture to another. To me, the best general example is the speed limit. It's a legal limit, and you can be fined for exceeding it, but 99% of drivers don't follow it and are not punished. In fact, the social pressure is on drivers not to follow it. Those who do obey it are tailgated, honked at, cursed at, cut off in traffic.

That's an example of a society-wide custom that someone relying only on a "Speed Limit 55 mph" sign as a primary source document wouldn't know about. In The Map of My Dead Pilots, Colleen Mondor wrote about bush pilots in Alaska flying with loads whose weight was routinely underreported on the paperwork. According to her book, everyone in that subculture knew about it: the paperwork was not reliable. But a person coming along 100 years from now, reading the paperwork, might not know that. Even now, a person from outside the subculture might not realize that.

This same "reading between the lines" skill is one that we can apply to novels. What's the narrator's agenda, culture, point of view? Is he reliable? What's unspoken here? What is he leaving out? Where is he mistaken, and where is he actively trying to deceive, and why?

A brief note in closing, for those who are interested: My second book, Try Not to Breathe, will be coming out in paperback on Jan. 24. Preorders are available now through IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books a Million.


  1. This is why I try not to date myself by assuming a reader knows certain things. Writing fantasy teaches you to pay close attention to these details as well. When I write contemporary stories, it's such a relief not having to explain telephones and cars.

    I remember seeing a critique for a story that opened with the main character smiling because his cell phone played a certain song and he knew it was his ex-girlfriend (whom he missed) calling. The person doing the critique was mystified until the author explained that you can set different ringtones for different people. So even in the same day and age, not everyone has the same cultural knowledge!

    Reading classics also teaches us this. How many times have you been mystified by Shakespeare or Dickens or Hawthorne?

    1. You're right! My friend Kelly Fineman is always having to explain the jokes and symbolism in Shakespeare to me. And I remember my annotated OLIVER TWIST explaining the cues that signaled to Dickens's readers that the girls were practicing the oldest profession ... cues that are utterly lost on 21st-Century readers.

  2. The following comment was received from Carrie via email:

    The existence of multiple historical sources helps mitigate the problem of missing or misreported information. Using your Alaskan bush pilot example, the cargo paperwork might be inaccurate, but an examination of bush pilot accident reports, or citations of bush pilots for falsifying records, or a review of the private correspondence of bush pilots might fill in many of the gaps, providing a more accurate picture.

    We do gain a certain perspective by knowing something about the people behind the words we read. However, most writers aren't aware of how their own world view or psychological landscape skews their work. Also, whose to say what sort of personal agenda the examiner of those writings is bringing to his or her evaluation? It's subjectivity layered upon subjectivity. That's why when I read a book review, I find myself learning more about the reviewer than the work she's critiquing. We never reveal ourselves more than when we are trying to appear objective.

    1. I agree that multiple sources can help produce a more complete picture. And that one fascinating thing about "reading between the lines" is how writers (or narrators) can reveal their biases without even realizing it.

      You also talked about the bias of the researcher, which I didn't even touch upon, although it's a factor, of course. The first thing that springs to mind here is our tendency to seize upon source material that confirms our beliefs, and minimize or discredit source material that contradicts our pet theories. And then the reader will look through a filtered lens as well, just to further complicate the picture!

  3. One of the best books I've read dealing with this topic is "The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey. It's a fantastic novel about a detective who's stuck in hospital with nothing to do, who starts researching Richard II (you know, the supposed hunchback who killed his nephews in the Tower of London so he could become king) and discovers the huge biases in the primary sources. It's a fascinating twist on the detective novel (great for book lovers and history buffs!) which completely vindicates Richard. It's an older book but if you can find a copy I'd highly recommend it!